(director/writer: Jean-Pierre Melville; screenwriter: from the novel by Joseph Kessel; cinematographers: Pierre Lhomme/Walter Wottitz; editor: Françoise Bonnot; music: Eric De Marsan; cast: Lino Ventura (Philippe Gerbier), Simone Signoret (Mathilde), Paul Meurisse (Luc Jardie), Jean-Pierre Cassel (François), Claude Mann (Le Masque), Paul Crauchet (Felix); Runtime: 145; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Jacques Dorfmann; Rialto Pictures; 1969-France-in French with English subtitles)

“It’s a haunting and sublime work that offers a realistic but horrific account of the underground Resistance.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Jean-Pierre Melville (“Le Samourai”/”Le Doulos”/ “Bob Le Flambeur”) grounded his action thriller as a tribute to the French Resistance of WWII, an organization he was part of. It’s based on Belle de Jour novelist Joseph Kessel’s wartime book “Army of Shadows.” Melville, who changed his last name in homage to American author Herman Melville, is known for his unemotional, spare and stoic gangster films, shoots Army in the Shadows in the same tough way thereby giving the underground the same hardboiled look he has given the underworld. It’s a haunting and sublime work that offers a realistic but horrific account of the underground Resistance and how in order to function and make their cause work they had to do inhumane things they would never do in civilian life. These men are looked upon as heroes, even if some of their actions might make the viewer flinch in horror (such as watching the execution of a traitor who is strangled with a towel because a gunshot would alert the neighbors). This was a labor of love project that was on the filmmaker’s mind for over 25 years, though this is his third film with a Resistance theme.

It opens with Wehrmacht soldiers (played by French dancers) marching through the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs Elysees. Then it switches abruptly to bulky, bespectacled, middle-aged resistance leader Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a civil engineer with connections in high places, who has been arrested in October 1942 in Marshal Pétain’s Vichy government and after a brief stay in a French-occupied concentration camp is transferred to the Gestapo headquarters in Paris. Philippe escapes in the headquarters’ building before the transfer is complete by knifing his Nazi guard to death and flees to German-occupied Lyons, where he’s determined to find the informer who betrayed him. Philippe hooks up with his comrades—Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), François (Jean-Pierre Cassel), Felix (Paul Crauchet), and with Lyons housewife Mathilde (Simone Signoret), the matriarch for the boys of the underground–and the men venture to London in a secretive meeting with De Gaulle and return to do battle again in Marseilles and Lyons. This doomed army group get caught in an impossible situation of whether or not to kill the brave Mathilde who has been captured and tortured by the Gestapo, as they are not certain if she will give them all away when the Nazis threaten to force her daughter into prostitution.

It’s a film that constantly disturbs our sensibilities and makes us question our underlying moral postures. Heroism to Melville isn’t the pretty picture Hollywood gives us in its sanitized war films. This is a grim film where those pursuing a noble cause don’t have the opportunity to even enjoy that as they must be ever vigilant for the possible worst. It’s like no other film about resistance fighters, a true gem that leaves you pondering what extreme measures some will take to secure freedom. It leaves one with the feeling all is futile, while the book was much more optimistic about the future. In the end, one takes away from the film a need to achieve some kind of intelligence for survival and a respect for solitude as a means to live with dignity in the closed worlds we are under the most hostile conditions forced to live in.

Simone Signoret and Lino Ventura in L'armée des ombres (1969)